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Solar flares, such as this one that erupted on Oct. 28, 2003, can disrupt power and communications systems on Earth and pose a danger to spacecraft.
Solar flares, such as this one that erupted on Oct. 28, 2003, can disrupt power and communications systems on Earth and pose a danger to spacecraft. (Solar And Heliospheric Laboratory Via Associated Press)

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Solar Flare Confounds Scientists

As revelers prepared to celebrate President Bush's second inauguration on Jan. 20, the most intense burst of solar radiation in 50 years sped to Earth after an enormous solar flare. The radiation reached Earth in 15 minutes -- much faster than the two or more hours normally required, researchers said last week.

The super-fast-moving flare set off radiation monitors worldwide and upset detectors on spacecraft. It also upset theories of space weather and highlighted the potential dangers to interplanetary astronauts from radiation storms.

Richard Mewaldt of the California Institute of Technology said the speed of the radiation burst was troubling because "it's too fast to respond with much warning to astronauts or spacecraft that might be outside Earth's protective magnetosphere." He added: "We need to develop the ability to predict flares in advance if we are hoping to send humans to explore our solar system."

The flare, at 2 a.m. Eastern time, was caused by the buildup and sudden release of magnetic stress in the atmosphere above a sunspot. Such flares are the most powerful explosions known in the solar system.

According to presentations at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union last week, the energized protons began reaching Earth only minutes after the first sign of the flare. The researchers said they currently have no way to predict the energy flow into and out of solar flares.

-- Marc Kaufman

Suicide Rate Is Unchanged

Despite a dramatic increase in the psychiatric treatment of emotional disorders over the past decade, there has been no decrease in the rate of suicidal thoughts and behavior among adults, according to a highly respected federal survey.

People who attempt suicide were far more likely to be treated, especially with antidepressants such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, in 2001-2003 compared with 1990-1992. But the rates of suicidal ideation, gestures and attempts remained essentially unchanged, said researchers from Harvard Medical School and elsewhere, who published their findings last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The striking finding may have several explanations, they said: Reductions in suicidal behavior as a result of treatment might be offset by increases in such behavior triggered by the drugs in some people -- the Food and Drug Administration last year warned of such effects in children, but has not said the problem affects adults.

It is possible that suicidal behavior would have increased without the growth in treatment, or that patients got inadequate treatment. It is also possible that antidepressants are not good at reducing suicidal behavior, even when prescribed correctly.


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